A year after his assassination in Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden is as irrelevant today to the welfare of millions of starving and suffering Muslims as he was when alive. The same holds true for almost all Islamist political movements who are singularly concerned with enforcing their ideologies on the often unwilling Muslim populace, while these movements have no plans for alleviating poverty, hunger, and disease.
Last year when I learnt of Mr. bin Laden’s assassination, I headed straight to the Parliament in Islamabad to report on the mass protests that many had predicted would erupt in case of such an eventuality. I walked up and down the Constitution Avenue but did not spot a single protester. I visited the Lal Masjid, the fundamentalist hotbed in the centre of Islamabad, hoping to capture some action there. Again, there was nothing to report. After walking through the capital for hours I realised that there may not be any mass demonstrations to protest against Mr. bin Laden’s sudden demise.
In the weeks following Mr Bin Laden’s death hardly any protests were witnessed anywhere in the Muslim majority countries. Unbeknown to most political pundits (especially in the west), Mr. bin Laden had gradually become a nonentity to the ordinary Muslims who have been busy fighting a losing battle against food price inflation, violence, and hunger. Whereas the majority of Indonesians and Pakistanis held a favourable view of Mr. bin Laden during 2002-2005, his popularity declined significantly in most Muslim majority countries by 2011.
In the recent past, religious (Islamist) parties active in the political arena have advocated using force to impose their ideologies on the populace and have evoked religion to mobilise the society against the ‘heretics’ within and the infidels elsewhere. Osama bin Laden followed the same approach. He evoked Islam to mobilise the Pashtun and Arab youths to fight first against the Soviet Union and later against America and its allies. His protégés, including the Afghan Taliban, followed the same ideology while brutally enforcing their puritan version of Islam where armed men entrusted themselves to hold sway over matters regarding vice and virtue. The Islamists projected public executions and flogging of men, women and children as the ‘true’ face of Islam.
Similar to the Taliban, the Islamists, regardless of being in Pakistan or elsewhere, are almost always busy creating mass hysteria about the ‘infidel’ killing and pillaging through the Muslim lands. Hence, the Islamists are found campaigning for pan-Islamic movements to raise Muslim armies for the doomsday Armageddon between the Muslims and the rest. Islamists not active in the electoral politics propagate this through sermons delivered from the pulpit, whereas those active in the electoral politics propagate the same on the floor of the House.
The Islamists’ political philosophy almost always is focused on first wrestling the control of governments and militaries from the ‘heretic secularists’ before the Islamists would be able to offer any relief to the populace. Their political manifestos therefore seldom list any policies about what is needed by the masses in the short run. One therefore knows a lot about where the Islamist parties, such as Jamaat-I-Islami, Jamiat-i-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) and others stand on Kashmir, Israel and President Obama, but one knows almost nothing about how these parties would address the immediate challenges, such as dengue fever, power shortages, poor water supply and sanitation, and generating employment opportunities for millions of unemployed youth.
For decades Mr. bin Laden lived in countries where poverty, hunger, and disease were the biggest concerns of the poor and disenfranchised. However, despite having access to millions of dollars of his own money and billions more that others would have readily donated, he did not initiate any mentionable projects to address poverty, hunger or disease in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen. He could have founded hospitals, schools and vocational training institutes. Instead he sponsored military academies in the most deprived parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
If one were to look back at the communities today where Mr. bin Laden had lived in the past 25-odd years, would one see a transformed people with improved access to health and education facilities, or would one see more hunger, disease and hardship. Had Mr. bin Laden used his celebrity to address poverty, hunger, and disease, he could have transformed the very communities, which hosted him for years.
This lack of imagination also ails most Pakistan-based Islamist parties. Consider JUI, which is an astute Islamist party that has often outsmarted non-religious parties in political maneuvering. JUI does not have a policy for sanitation, water supply or primary healthcare. Apart from claims that if elected JUI will fix all of the above, it offers no blueprints or hosts expert panels to debate the same. JUI’s central leadership comprising the Rahman brothers could be seen active in Parliament’s standing committees for foreign affairs (Mr. Fazl-ur-Rahman is a member) and Kashmir/religious affairs (Mr. Atta-ur-Rahman is a member) thus conforming to the ideological bend of the most Islamist parties that see all threats being exogenous and the only internal concerns are reserved for vice and virtue.
Jamaat-i-Islami also champions issues that fail to address the immediate challenges faced by the poor in Pakistan. Jamaat’s recent drive against obscenity is one such example of using a red herring to demonstrate street power, command airtime, control political discourse, yet offer no relief to the masses on poor job prospects, or inadequate healthcare and education opportunities.
Jamaat is also a smart political enterprise whose leadership is intimately aware of its limited vote bank in Pakistan that is not sufficient to put the Jamaat in control of the federal government either by itself or in a coalition. The Jamaat uses this almost certain lack of a possibility of a Jamaat-led government to its advantage and spoils the governance for others by promising the world to the electorate. Jamaat’s manifesto is therefore filled with promises that other parties with a shot at forming the government cannot match. Since the Jamaat knows it will never have to deliver on its promises, its electoral commitments include an unsustainably high minimum wage in a welfare state that will provide for the basic needs of all. Nowhere in Jamaat’s manifesto is any mention of how these projects, requiring hundreds of billions of dollars, will be financed.
Even the most celebrated Islamists became irrelevant to the masses soon after their death. Who can forget the hundreds of thousands of mourners at the funeral of late General Zia-ul-Haq in August 1988, which suggested to some that his legacy would last well beyond his death. While General Zia’s legacy is alive in Pakistan in the form of religious violence and intolerance, however within a couple of years after his demise his family and a few close friends were the only ones observing his death anniversary.
On the other hand, political, social, and religious reformers in the subcontinent have remained relevant to the masses even decades after their death. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s final resting place in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh is always alive with visitors who shared Bhutto’s political philosophy. The mausoleum of Bulleh Shah in Kasur and Data Darbar in Lahore are evidence of lasting legacies of the reformers who have remained relevant to their followers.
A few decades from today few will remember, if at all, that on May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden was assassinated in Abbottabad. However, most will remember the several thousand victims of religious extremists who followed in Mr. bin Laden’s footsteps.